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It was late when I left. Quiet outside, dark inside the house. The clock on the stove flashed the wrong time of day. 3:17, 3:17, 3:17. My feet creaked the floor in telling ways, slipping into the hall outside the living room.

"Well go then."

Some chuckles and coughs. The scraping sound of a cigarette lighter. The small light of her cigarette. She sat in the dark, all the curtains drawn but one. One wide open at the far end of the room. Open and spilling orange light over the carpet. She watched the window, covered in dark. An outline -- a torso, some baggy t-shirt with a logo high up on the chest, sweat pants. Perched on the couch, legs drawn in. Knees upright. No face. No shoulders or upper body. A cigarette burning small light.

"Well go then," she said, softer this time. She coughed again, clogged and rusty. The streetlight bleeding in monotone through the far window and all over the carpet. Her gaze fastened to the opening.

I pulled the inner door shut behind me. The screen door hissed and banged against the frame. I crossed the lawn into others, into other lawns cluttered with childish debris and carelessness, things left overturned. Yards dark without anticipation, nobody left to come home. Televisions and half-caught conversations climbing from open windows. Some shouting. Always crying. Children always crying.

At the corner I turned to watch the house from a block removed. Like a blown bulb in a fixture. Like it had no context now.

I knocked on her door. Her mother answered, pulling at a robe slung over sharp shoulders and eyeing me and taking in deep breaths through her nostrils. She didn’t say hello, just turned and called.

"Amelia. You got company."

She told me to wait there on the steps and I waited there on the steps. When Amelia turned up, her mom blocked her with those shoulders and made some hushed commands, using her fingers as punctuation, as cues. Amelia nodded and nodded. Looked over her mom’s shoulder and nodded, kept nodding.

"Yeah, Mom. Yeah, I know. Yes."

"I'm just saying right now. You hear me?"

"Yes, Mom, yes."

Some more nodding, her palms surrendered as she maneuvered and approached the door.

"Sarah, hey."

She stopped nodding and smiled. I smiled. Her mother breathed in through her nostrils—loud, deep breaths—and turned down the hall.

"Come in."

I stepped inside the dim light, stopped to unlace my shoes. Amelia held my arm.

"Keep them on. Your feet will get dirty."

We walked through the kitchen, down the hall, stopped in the living room where her dad was splayed across the couch. Sweatpants. Shirt bunched around his sternum, bald bulbous belly jaundiced in the light of the lamp. We would have passed along without even a pause, but her dad made a sound, high-pitched and scratchy from the back of the throat, and sat up pulling the thin cotton down over that stomach.

"Hey, girls."

He slipped his feet into his thong sandals but didn't stand.

"How you girls doing, huh? How's it going?"

His fingers were stubby and they sat on the crotch of his sweatpants, wriggling like they were shaking out sleep.

"Nothing, Gene," Amelia said because maybe her dad wasn't really her dad or because maybe she only ever wanted to call him Gene. Either way he was mostly indifferent.

His eyes found me and stayed.

"Nothing, huh? Oh, okay. . ." He drew out his words, the last words, to last much longer than needed, to sound much more knowing. His voice was nasally, even squeaky. It rose at the end of every statement like he was always asking questions. His eyes found me and stayed and I was the only one in the room.

"Okay. . ."

"Yeah, Gene."

He scooched on the couch, leaving room for one more. He told us about a show he saw about a guy who watched shows. Shows all day long. Game shows. Recorded them and played them back. Looking for the one he could figure out and compete.

"And so, and so he found one, right? He found one and he figured out the pattern and he ended up on the show, right? And he just, he just kept winning and winning. Stacks of money he kept winning, like a real winner, right? Like a champ. You girls should sit down here and we'll see how it ends up."

"No, Gene."

Amelia moved down the hall, out of the light of the lamp, and I followed. Gene said something behind us, and I couldn't tell if he was telling or asking. Amelia said it didn't matter.

"God," she said. "What a creepy fucking creep."

She flipped the light, brought us in, closed the door behind us.

"Mom says you can't stay but she'll be in bed soon and you can sleep here, you'll just have to leave early before she and Gene get up."

I dropped my small bag of things near her bookshelf, smoothed my shirt, sat cross-legged on the carpet. Amelia's room was arrayed in angst, this being a particularly histrionic phase of her private personal tragedy. Dark clothes in piles. Dark shades. Dark posters to decorate -- posters with serious men holding guitars, black and white posters of serious men from distant and strictly serious times sitting with poor posture, with pens. Movie maniacs wielding chainsaws and trophy skins. Jim Morrison, shirtless and pouty, crucified above her bed.

She stuck a CD in her stereo, turned up the volume, sat down on the bed. She pulled her hair away from her face, making it taut on her scalp so she could apply a small black band. A slow droning noise came from the speakers, filled the room. Amelia, clearly affected, rolled her eyes and closed her lids, tilted her head, clutched the sides of the mattress as the sound washed over.

I told her it was good and she agreed. She pulled herself back to reach into the space under her bed. She pulled out a small wooden box, held it in her lap. She undid two tiny clasps, propped the lid. She set the items on the mattress, gently. A glass bowl, a sandwich baggie of some curiously brown weed. It looked like coffee or the dirt you use for potted houseplants. She used the pipe as a scoop, offered me greens.

I shook my head, waved my hand, smiled.

Her eyes on my eyes, her mouth hanging the slightest bit. She held the bowl close to her chest. Her eyes dropped and she rolled the lighter between her fingers, around them. "What're you gonna do?"

I told her I didn't know.

"Where're you gonna go?"

I told her I didn't know.

She asked me if it was really so bad, with Mom. In that house with Mom.

I told her probably not, no. I told her it was something I could probably live with. I told her but maybe that wasn't the point, maybe. Maybe it didn't matter whether it was so bad or not.

She nodded saying yeah totally like she understood, like she had an idea, like I was telling her exactly what she already knew. She filled the room with smoke, lit a stick of incense to mask the smell. But not like other people, not like most people burn their incense. Not like a luxury. Not like nice things. She torched it in two different spots, from both ends, stared as the flame grew, as the stick of sea breeze ashed along the surface of her dresser.

The drone became a slow drumbeat punctuated by detuned guitars. She reached into the space between her mattress and box spring and pulled out a disposable razor. For ladies' legs, that sort of thing. Her eyes searched mine, foggy and uncentered.

"I don't want your attention," she said. Guitar chords and bass drums joined by what may have been chanting, one note sustained and carried over measure by measure. "I don't want it like that. Not that way. I just, just, just it's just I need to feel something sometimes, you know? Because sometimes I worry I can't. That I'm not able to and when I do it I know I can, I can physically feel that I can feel. Right? Then I can feel it and treat it and dab peroxide on it and I can smell it.”

She took off her shirt and showed me her stomach and her chest. Some of the marks were new and weeping, others older, flaking. Others healed completely, leaving new skin. I looked at her body and I noted that she had no tits, not impressive ones anyway, but her body was lean and delicate like guys like. Fragile like guys like because guys like to break things. But she had no tits.

She asked me if I wanted to touch and I said no and she started to cry. She pulled her comforter off the mattress and over her shoulders, pulled it close around her neck. She cried and looked at the carpet and the drums and the guitars and the drone thundered throughout the room. She wiped her eyes and nose with her palm and told me she loved me and I said I loved her too. She nodded and sighed and sat up to turn off the stereo.

I lay along the floor in the far corner, along the wall closest to the door. I watched while she turned off the light, filling the room with black because of the black walls, the black curtains. I couldn't see her but I waited. I waited for something to indicate she was back on her bed. I didn't hear anything for a long time and my eyes couldn't adjust. I lay perfectly still and tried to quiet my breathing and the room was so quiet I could hear a ringing in my ears -- small at first but then wide and encroaching -- and I couldn't tell if she was still by the door or across the room in the bed. It seemed like forever before I heard the springs, before I heard her roll and yawn.

I lay on the floor in my clothes, in my shoes, my hands underneath my head, my eyes dazzled by the shapeless, colorless forms proceeding in the dark. I slept off and on. I was startled from a dream involving a descending stairwell and a dark doorway. Everything behind me backlit and sketchy. No comfort in retreating. My body spasmed and I kicked out at Amelia's bookshelf with the heel of my shoe. My eyes searched for a point of reference, a shape to anchor the difference between the dream and the bedroom. My eyes found the light from the doorway. Not a harsh light, not a light bulb but a lighter shade of dark filtering in from the hall, from a window at the eastern edge of the house. The door was open. Open with a visitor, a dark trace against a lighter shade of dark. A figure backlit, faceless, lingering.

And just outside the bedroom I could hear him snuffling, the wheezing breaths, the soft clearing of his throat, and the eventual spread of himself throughout the room -- the pattering drops against the carpet, the smell of a desire to reach me from where he stood beyond the door.

Joel Kopplin
75 pages
ISBN 9781937402334

Joel Kopplin
$2.99 ISBN 9781937402334

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